Sometimes, “Don’t” May Turn Out to Be the Best Strategic Choice

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Oct 8, 2013

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” — Napoleon Bonaparte, French emperor and general

The thesis of my upcoming book, Execution IS the Strategy (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, March 2014), is simple: business moves so fast today that you must empower front-line workers to take strategy into their own hands, moving ahead with what works and executing in the moment to maximize organizational success.

We can no longer leave strategy to executive teams that plan 3-5 years ahead, because multi-year plans go stale before the toner dries on the printouts.

Think about it: Do you remember what was big five years ago? I don’t. Very little of it matters anymore, so why should you execute against those priorities — or even last year’s, for that matter?

Effective strategic execution becomes a matter of allowing your team to choose the appropriate tools at hand, combining them with the right training and whatever tactics seem the most appropriate in order to get it all done. The savvy leader lets his or her people take charge and take chances when necessary, without punishing them when things go wrong, because no one can learn without making mistakes.

The Harvard Edge

Even so, you require at least a bare bones framework in place to drive your work toward your strategic goals. So make it clear to your team what you will and won’t allow in terms of workplace behavior. As economist Michael E. Porter points out, “Strategy renders choices about what not to do as important as choices about what to do.

Dr. Porter, a Harvard professor, may well be the country’s top expert on business strategy, having written 18 books on the topic. Indeed, his colleagues consider him the father of modern business strategy, and many businesses and governments accept his theories as both groundbreaking and practical.

Unlike some academics, Porter hasn’t insulated himself from the field he studies and writes about — he’s led economic strategy programs in several countries and founded three non-profit organizations.

The “Don’ts”

Often, we focus so tightly on what we can and should do in terms of strategy that we miss the obvious: what Porter calls the choices about what not to do.

No doubt Porter intended his statement to mostly apply to the big things: failed large-scale schemas, joint ventures, unprofitable directions, or technologies it would be wasteful to adopt. But it all starts with the small, day-to-day decisions on the team level.

For example, in Execution IS the Strategy, I discuss five things that should never sway a decision about what to do next:

  • What you feel like doing.
  • An item’s order of appearance on your to-do list.
  • What comes to mind next.
  • Who’s screaming the loudest.
  • The order of the sticky notes.

These reflect basic, low-level, common-sense decisions. You should avoid other behaviors as well, not just because they waste time, but because if taken too far they can tear a team apart. All should be obvious, but some folks never do learn common sense, so you may have to explicitly outlaw them.

1. Don’t talk politics or religion

Unless you work for a think tank or religious institution, these are always touchy subjects.

Discussions on either front can get out of hand, stirring up personal emotions. This can’t help but raise barriers between team members and impede workflow.

It’s especially important for you, as the leader, to keep your own counsel. If you impose your personal beliefs on your team, you’ll just generate resentment.

2. Never denigrate a specific group

Ban sexism, racism, ageism, and similar bigotries from discussion in any format; it’s not just hateful, it’s unprofessional.

Several days ago (as I write this), one of my colleagues told me he’d received an extremely offensive racial “joke” by email from an acquaintance. The email originated from the Director and President of a small business in California.

My colleague won’t be doing business with that company in the future.

3. Don’t gossip

People are social beings, and we tend to spread news about others, especially if it seems juicy.

Don’t. So what if someone’s marriage is in trouble or if so-and-so has no sense of style?

Silly gossip wastes time, while the malicious form not only makes you and your team look bad, it may damage those involved. Another colleague recently had the displeasure of watching a family member’s small business erode because of vicious lies spread by a former employee.

4. Don’t let anyone duck responsibility

Accountability offers a touchstone for both integrity and success. Urge your people to admit when they’ve done something wrong, or when something they tried didn’t work.

Despite what you may have learned from big corporate scandals in recent years, finger-pointing, scapegoating, and ducking responsibility damage trust and inevitably degrade the team. Accept your errors, take your licks, and move on.

5. Avoid over-negative thinking

I abhor group think; sometimes a team needs a Devil’s advocate to help them move forward along the most appropriate path. But once a decision has been made, the team members must accept it and go on, not whine about how it’s unfair and will never work.

Being a “PITA negatron,” as one colleague calls it (I’ll let you figure out what the acronym stands for) won’t win you friends and will inevitably slow work flow. Again, this especially holds true for you, the leader. If you can’t scrape up any enthusiasm for your work, then how do you expect your people to do so?

Put your foot down

In America, free speech is an inalienable right. It doesn’t matter what people think or do on their free time as long as it’s legal.

But in almost every case, people must be cautious exercising that right when they walk through the office door. Doing anything morally off base will delay the achievement of an organization’s strategic goals, and the gnashing of teeth that ensues will waste valuable time.

While they’re in your domain, team members need to put on their teamwork hat, leaving personal opinion, prejudices, and negativity behind until they exit the work door, continuing to be careful with professional interactions on personal time.

That said, there is also plenty of room to be considerate.

Perhaps one of your teammates practices a different religion that you do. You’re planning a meeting, and your colleague informs you it’s tentatively scheduled on one of his major religious holidays. If there is no business impact, it certainly is a easy enough to move the date out of respect and maintain goodwill. Do you agree?

What would you add to this list of beliefs or opinions we should be careful about expressing at work? How can conversations around political, religious, and cultural beliefs cause problems, build barriers, or waste time while at work?

Or how have you seen people’s personal beliefs shape their professional views in a negative way? Tell me a story and leave a comment below.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

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